Ordinarily, I avoid reading books and watching movies that portray head shrinking because I’m careful to maintain a work/life balance. But I couldn’t ignore Eleanor Oliphant. Too many people recommended the novel as a delightful portrayal of someone with serious troubles.
I soon saw they were right, and so was I. Eleanor is truly delightful, but the book did remind me of work. Over my years as a therapist, I’ve sat with dozens of Eleanors and many of them were delightful, too. By Eleanors, I mean disturbed and painfully lonely young women, awkward around people, scarred by horrifying secrets. The world is full of Eleanors.
I found the book easier to read than many case notes. When most shrinks write about their Eleanors, and everyone else, for that matter, they rely on far too many buzzwords and jargon. In my own writing, I try to avoid those words that therapists use and, instead, trust plain speech to describe human thoughts, feelings and behavior. Oddly, using common language freshens things up for me. Imagine my dismay when I hear the speech of ordinary people sprinkled with psychiatric jargon. If I’ve got to hear another person talk about codependency, narcissism, passive-aggressiveness, bipolar, or ADHD, I swear.
Thankfully, Gail Honeyman’s portrayal of her Eleanor is jargon-free. It’s like I met a real person, not an abstraction. In fact, reading this book was similar to sitting and listening to my Eleanors. The truth about Honeyman’s Eleanor unfolds gradually and inconsistently, just as I find with mine. Not one of them ever tells me everything I need to know right when I want to know it. We must wait for Eleanors to reveal themselves. The only difference between meeting an Eleanor in a book and meeting one in person is you know, in the book, the truth will come out in the end. Sometimes, in person, the truth never emerges.
I didn’t feel at all like I was at work though most of Honeyman’s book. Not until, [Spoiler Alert!] Eleanor started going to therapy. Then I realized, it’s the therapists I can’t stand reading about, not their clients. This is a strange thing for me to realize and I’m going to have to figure it out. I take pride in being reflective, but when I see an image of a therapist in books or on screen, I cringe.
I did a quick internet search for other therapists commenting on the portrayal of therapists in media. What bothers them all are the fictional therapists who are unethical or ineffective. They’re worried that people will see that and not want to go to therapy. They wouldn’t be pleased by the therapists I created in my novels.
In my three works of fiction (one is not yet published), I’ve had five significant characters who are shrinks. They are all deeply flawed. It was important for me to write them that way. If they are not flawed, they are not real.
The therapist Honeyman assigns to her Eleanor, one Dr Maria Temple, is not a character with much dimension. Oh, she has her quirks, everyone in this book is quirky; but we don’t get an idea of her interior life. She’s little more than a literary device to open Eleanor up and get her to spill her secrets to us.
I believe it’s a mistake to portray therapists and therapy sanctimoniously as the consummate solution to life’s problems. Gross examples of ethical misconduct are one thing, no one wants to see that; but an insistence on perfection is misguided, unnecessary, and boring. For, we are all Eleanors, and the sooner everyone realizes it, the happier and the more whole we all will be.
There’s a second reason I cringe whenever a therapist comes on screen. I know that soon the therapist will figure into a deus ex machina.
In case you’re not familiar with obscure literary terms or don’t know Greek, let me explain. Deus ex machina, or “god from the machine” is a cheap plot device authors use to get their characters and themselves out of a jam. In ancient Greek plays, this involved lowering a god onto the stage with a winch to resolve a conflict and conclude the drama. Deus ex machina creates a false sense of consolation that never exists in real life.
Since much of their audience doesn’t believe in God, if modern authors are to use deus ex machina, they must introduce another character to ineptly resolve their plots. Often it’s the therapist that takes the place of God. The therapist will sort everything out, reveal the truth, and set everyone on the right path.
You don’t have to write a book to depend on deus ex machina. Many times when I see a client who has gotten himself into trouble with the law, with using drugs, gambling too much, or sleeping around, I ask them what they’re going to do about it and how they will make amends. The answer I get is that they are already doing it by going to therapy. No, I say. Therapy is not the answer, it’s where we ask the questions. Therapy itself doesn’t resolve anything; it’s what you do with your therapy.
So, please, whether you are the author of a novel or the author of your life, don’t expect a therapist to be perfect. We are not, nor do we need to be. We help you more when we are flawed. And don’t expect the therapist to resolve all your problems. Life doesn’t get all wrapped up neatly like it does in fiction. Life is messy. You are a mess. Your therapist is a mess. We are all in this mess together.